Cartes postales du bagne

Adventures in Instagram #3

I made a short return trip to French Guiana in March 2019. Although I didn’t take a lot of photos, there were things I noticed at sites that I hadn’t seen or at least noticed previously.

For example, on this visit to the Bagne des Annamites in Montsinery, I had time to continue along the trail to the creek which is a popular picnic spot. As it was half-term there were a number of families swimming and picnicking. I took a photo of the creek using my smartphone rather than my Nikon but was nevertheless careful not to be invasive of people’s privacy. The image shows people swimming but you cannot make out any clear details. Nevertheless I decided not to post the photo on instagram despite thinking how it contests dominant images of former prison sites. By which I mean images which fetishize certain aspects of architecture such as windows with bars, cells, instruments of torture and restraint and so on. The creek was integral to life in the camp and provided a form of transportation via the river network at a time when there was no road to Cayenne. One of the roles of the camp was to create a network between the other sites at Saut Tigre and near Apatou where Annamite (Vietnamese) prisoners had been sent.

But in not reproducing the photo, I am also caught up in the processes of cropping, framing and excluding which allow us to present penal heritage as empty and abandoned. This seems to me a similar practice as the production of images of the pristine, empty beach. Such images evoke notions of blank, deserted space awaiting the arrival of the tourist to project his or her neocolonial fantasies and pathologies. The enlightened amateur (or indeed professional) historian or anthropologist exploring the vestiges of the bagne is perhaps no different here to the gap year traveller looking for Leonardo DiCaprio’s beach. So instead of reproducing the image I took of families enjoying the creek, I will offer up a different yet comparable image – a postcard on sale in the gift shop on the Iles du Salut.


I have taken care to reproduce this as an object rather than an image for copyright reasons. The postcard shows a similar bathing scene but this time at what came to be known as the ‘piscine des bagnards’ on Ile Royale, the largest island of the Iles du Salut archipelago. The postcard whose date is unknown probably dates from the end of the 1990s, early 2000s when AGAMIS (whose stamp appears on the back) took over the management of the Iles on behalf of CNES. However, the image itself seems to capture an aesthetic belonging to an earlier moment, itself located between the vintage reproductions of images taken during the operation of the penal colony and more recent photography which offers us a conventional aesthetic of ruins and nature abandoned of messy human presence. It reminds me of tourist guides dating from the 1970s and 80s during which the Iles du Salut were being reimagined as a site of leisure within a wider agenda intended to energise the department’s tourist industry precisely by moving beyond rather than celebrating its dark past.

Today the two activities appear less mutually exclusive although for some there is something inappropriate about reimagining a site of suffering as a site of pleasure. The stakes are complex not least the various discourses aimed at controlling and often excluding the use of different sites by local communities. SF

Postcard #4. A (postcard) history of Cayenne

Today while looking for a post box that wasn’t defunct I walked past the town hall in Cayenne. There are often outdoor exhibitions attached to the railings which surround the mairie. Featured currently is a short exhibition of historic images representing Cayenne. Most of these are postcards and the exhibition brings together multiple archives and collections including the Archives Départementales, the Société des Amis des Archives et de l’Histoire de Guyane (SAAHG) and the Musée des Cultures Guyanais.


This mini-exhibition made me realise two (fairly obvious) things about the postcard. First, that its role as visual marker of history cannot be underestimated especially in places like French Guiana where access to photographic equipment and film was more restricted than in mainland Europe during the early days of photography. And second that there are two, if not three, histories being presented on the railings – the history of the town, Cayenne, the history of its representation to the world beyond and, finally, the history of each postcard as it travelled from sender to recipient to collector and ultimately to the archives and museums back in French Guiana.


There is also something interesting visually about presenting enlarged images of the town just minutes from the actual sites featured. You only need to turn the corner or walk another block and you are confronted with an updated view of the postcard image that you’ve just seen. SF



Postcard #3. A short history of the postcard

As subsequent posts will explore, my understanding of the postcard as philosophical trope for thinking about incarceration and its aftermath draws heavily on Jacques Derrida’s La Carte postale: De Socrates à Freud et au-delà. In the extended preface ‘ENVOIS’, described as the preface to the book he hasn’t written, Derrida refers on various occasions to the history and technology of the postal system. In his evocations of the fax machine, the computer and the telephone, Derrida posits the postcard and the post, more generally, as an obsolete form of communication. Yet it is one he cannot abandon.

The history of the postcard in France and elsewhere is useful for understanding this ongoing attachment to its format. Ironically, perhaps, the early history of the postcard in France seems, at least retrospectively, to involve a failure by the French government and its postal service to appreciate that the success of the postcard as a mode of communication lies in the simplicity of its format. Its basic form and fiscal value underwent multiple, often unnecessarily complicated changes during the 1870s and 1880s with the hybrid ‘carte-lettre’ being introduced in 1886.

The first printed and patented postcard was produced in the United States in 1860. The first official European use of the ‘postcard’ as a form of correspondence took place in Austria in 1869 and the first ‘souvenir’ postcard is said to have been produced there. According to Georges Brunel in his history of the French postal system written at the end of the 18th century, during the first month 500,000 postcards were sold in Austria. While Brunel suggests that there was opposition from the French Minister of Finance, France followed suit in 1872 with the creation of their first postcard which went on sale in January 1873. However, the use of cards to send correspondence at regular postal rates seems to have occurred much earlier. The earliest known example is the picture card Theodore Hook sent to himself in London in 1840. The first known example of a postcard with a printed image dates from 1870 and was created by Léon Besnardeau at Camp Conlie, a training camp based in France during the Franco-Prussian war. Postcard collectors and historians seem to debate whether the card produced by Besnardeau really constitutes a ‘postcard’ since there was no space for stamps and it is unlikely it was ever sent without being first placed in an envelope thus defeating the purpose of the postcard as we have come to appreciate it. Derrida also talks of sending his postcards in envelopes, an open acknowledgement perhaps that he is cheating here. The most famous early picture and souvenir postcards were the 300,000 copies of ‘La Libonais’, a postcard (in 5 variations) featuring an lithographic image of the Eiffel Tower produced for the 1889 Exposition Universelle.

The first official French postcards were not franked but consisted of an ornate border, designated space on the right hand side for two 5 centimes stamps with the centre of the card reserved for the recipient’s address. The reverse was reserved for the message.


In 1875 the printing of postcards was opened up to general industry with the following conditions. The postcards had to have dimensions of 12cm x 8cm and weigh between 2 and 5 grams. In 1878, the postcard acquired its own fiscal value. Many of the previous indications on the front of the card disappeared so that it just read:


Ce côté est exclusivement réservé à l’adresse.

Two lines were given for the writing of the address and the rest of the front was left blank.

During the early 1890s, the card on which the postcards were printed underwent a series of tint changes: lilac, ochre and pale green. Brunel laments the awfulness of the lilac tint but also points out the failure of the green postcards, produced using a paste that made writing on the cards very difficult.

In 1879, postcards with a ‘paid response’ or ‘cartes-réponses’ were introduced by the French postal system (Union postale). Brunel indicates that these were effectively two cards with one left blank by the sender. Brunel points to the paradox whereby the ‘cartes-réponses’ were valid across the Union postale whereas stamps were only valid in the country from which they were sent.

In subsequent posts, I will look briefly at the development of the postal service in French Guiana as well as the production of postcards within the space of the penal colony.


Brunel, Georges, Le Timbre-poste francais. Étude historique et anecdotique de la Poste et du timbres en France et dans ces Colonies francaises (Paris: Librairie Ch. Delgrave, 1896).

Cartolis. Conservateur Régional de la Carte Postale, ‘Histoire de la carte postale’, Accessed 7 June 2018.

Derrida, Jacques, La Carte postale: De Socrates à Freud et au-delà (Paris: Flammarion, 1980).

Postcard #2. 148 x 105 mm

There is a general consensus that the standard size of an international postcard is A6 (148 x 105mm or 5.8 x 4.1 inches). The Universal Postal Union suggests a minimum size of 140 x 90 mm (5.51 x 3.54 inches) and maximum size of 235 mm x 120 mm (9.25 x 4.72 inches).

Like that of the oblong prison cell, its dimensions may vary but the space of the postcard is rarely a tabula rasa. The blank side is usually already populated with immovable objects, lines, boxes, instructions.

In keeping with the parameters of the postcard, the posts in this series will be intentionally short.

During the 2016 exhibition Inside at HMP Reading, Jean-Michel Pancin recast the 13ft x 7ft x 10ft cell C.3.3 (where Oscar Wilde spent his time at Reading) as a concrete slab embedded with the original cell door. This was on display in the prison’s chapel turned gym, the setting for celebrity readings of Wilde’s De Profundis during the exhibition.


Postcard #1. Method and Object

This is the first in series of short posts focused on the ‘postcard’. The postcard is integral to the project. As we shall explore in later posts, it has an important history within the representation of the bagne both during its operation and as a tourist destination. More generally, the postcard functions as a ‘metonym’ for tourism.

Despite its near obsolescence and recognized inadequacy as form of communication, the postcard continues to endure as a trope for thinking and writing about international travel. The postcard rack is also a staple in any museum or heritage gift shop regardless of the specific histories presented within the site. As such the postcard constitutes a point of commonality not only between penal heritage sites but other forms of tourism. Where framing techniques within a museum or exhibition might differ enormously, the uniformity of the postcard in size and shape allows comparison between sites in terms of the oblong image selected as metonym for the entire space.

blank_postcard copy

Elsewhere I have used the postcard as a trope for bringing together a whole series of reflections on different forms of penal tourism. These mainly refer to visits I’ve made to prison museums and exhibitions but also include other forms of carceral representation aimed at a public audience. The overwhelming question that emerged from visiting and thinking about these different sites was how we might imagine prison differently as something also obsolete (to paraphrase Angela Davis) or incomprehensible? And what role might sites once associated with prison, internment or detention play in this ‘re-imagining’.

Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2003).